It takes a Christmas tree farm an average of eight to twelve years to bring their crop to fruition. Most of these growers also harvest their product for transplanted sales. That is to say that they are selling live trees throughout the year to be transplanted into our living spaces. With all the time and effort it takes to grow these beautiful evergreens, why do so many continue to site conifers in the wrong location?

Perhaps the single most important question to ask yourself when purchasing a conifer for your landscape is, HOW MUCH SUNLIGHT DO I GET?” The second most important question is, “HOW MUCH SPACE DO I HAVE FOR THEM?” Far too often, as I look at contemporary landscapes, I notice HUGE site problems with conifers. Blue spruce (Picea pungens) planted five foot on center in a straight hedge line or Norway spruce (Picea abies) planted in heavy shade are not thoughtful solutions. Most conifers, cone-bearing trees or shrubs, prefer full sun to light shade. While there are some that will thrive in shade, they are not spruce, juniper, pine and fir. With all the new construction going on in New Jersey right now, there seems to be a race for immediate gratification when creating or rebuilding our landscapes. Blue spruce, white pine, Douglas fir, Norway spruce, and Hemlock are all prodigious conifers that over time will reach heights of forty to sixty feet tall and twenty to thirty feet wide. And if we envision planting these trees for the enjoyment of future generations then eighty to one hundred feet tall becomes our reality. Consider planting cultivars!

“A cultivar, or cultivated variety, is a group of plants under cultivation whose members differ from other members of the same species in one or more characteristics.” This can be achieved by an abnormality in the wild, hybridization or be selected under cultivation. An example of this is the prosaic Alberta Spruce which almost every gardener knows. The Alberta spruce, or dwarf white spruce, is a cultivar found by J.G. Jack and Alfred Rehder at Lake Laggan, Alberta, Canada in 1904. What all this technical stuff boils down to is there is always the right plant for the right location available. That is if you are willing to ask enough questions. Don’t be swayed by size and price. Just because you can buy a larger tree for less money does not mean that it is the right tree. Should you truly want a blue spruce hedge, consider planting Picea pungens ‘Blue Totem” or “Iseli Fastigiate.” These are two noteworthy narrow forms which mimic the form and function of another popular cultivar Emerald Green Arborvitae. Both blue spruce types are far better solutions, long term, than the species. If you are dealing with shady environments and still enjoy the texture of coniferous materials, don’t despair. There are still some candidates that are available to you. Hemlock, Yews, Umbrella pine and Japanese plum yew are at your disposal. Each species is a proven winner in shadier locations and all have usable cultivars for smaller footprints or more troublesome spots. For example, “I have a shady location with deer, but I want an evergreen conifer to cover my air conditioning unit”. Solution, Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Fastigiata’ (Japanese Plum Yew) will afford you the screen you so desire.

Remember that plants are a life form. They require food, water and attention. Ask as many questions as you can and try not to let monetary restrictions dictate your choices. There will always be a place for the larger species plants, but they should be limited to larger surroundings. Remember that the size of a tree at purchase does not determine the likelihood of its existence. Liken your decision making process to an engagement ring purchase. Cut, clarity and color are far more important than size. Do your homework!

Robert LaHoff
Hall’s Garden Center